Off the Beaten Track

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Tall tales and wild charm in Tasmania’s Mole Creek

It’s an area of un­touched wild beauty – and may also be Tas­ma­nian-tiger ter­ri­tory, writes Sue Wil­liams. Pho­tog­ra­phy by Adam Gib­son.

TWENTY YEARS have passed since one of the most im­por­tant en­coun­ters of Ra­mona West­brook’s life but her voice quiv­ers as she re­counts the events of that day. “It was like I’d seen a ghost,” she says. “My heart was thump­ing and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. It was the strangest ex­pe­ri­ence. I’d never felt any­thing like it be­fore – or felt it since.”

As Ra­mona was driv­ing home one early evening, close to the tiny town of Mole Creek in Tasmania’s cen­tral-north, she saw some­thing that turned her blood to ice. It was a Tas­ma­nian tiger cross­ing the road di­rectly in front of her.

She im­me­di­ately recog­nised the wolf-like an­i­mal by its gait – more like a kan­ga­roo than a dog – its long, stiff tail and pointed face, with a jaw that can open to 120 de­grees to crush the skull of its prey. But the puz­zle was that the fear­less noc­tur­nal preda­tor, right at the top of the Tas­ma­nian food chain, had been con­sid­ered ex­tinct since 1936, when the last cap­tive tiger (of­fi­cial name, thy­lacine) died in Ho­bart Zoo.

“But I know what I saw,” in­sists Ra­mona. “It was def­i­nitely a Tas­ma­nian tiger. And so many other peo­ple have seen them, too. We ab­so­lutely be­lieve there are still some out there...”

Ra­mona’s hus­band, Doug, puts his arm around her shoul­ders. Since 2008, when the cou­ple took over the lo­cal pub in Mole Creek, an hour west of Launce­s­ton, he’s heard sim­i­lar sto­ries over the bar from many of the lo­cals. More than 4000 sight­ings have been re­ported since the 1930s – and they didn’t stop af­ter the tiger was of­fi­cially de­clared ex­tinct in 1986.

An evan­gel­i­cal min­is­ter’s wife con­fided a few years ago that her hus­band had spot­ted one – and he’d never told a lie in his life – while close friends have also con­fessed to glimpses. Fur­ther­more, farm­ers have found live­stock ripped apart with such sav­agery that they say it could only have been the car­niv­o­rous mar­su­pial.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that they still ex­ist,” says Doug. He’s sit­ting in the back bar of the Mole Creek Ho­tel (mole­creekho­tel.com.au), where the walls are adorned with news­pa­per cut­tings about thy­lacines, old black-and-white pho­tos of the an­i­mal, paint­ings, a lead­light win­dow with a tiger de­sign and a fake pelt made of felt. A wooden carv­ing of a tiger stands above the bar and there are Tassie tiger T-shirts and caps for sale, Tiger pies on the menu and Tassie Tiger Ale on tap.

“We’ve cer­tainly be­come the cen­tre for the Tas­ma­nian tiger,” he says. “We have over­seas cam­era crews vis­it­ing to make films and pro­duce news sto­ries about them all the time. Some peo­ple say it’s like Scot­land with the Loch Ness Mon­ster. But this is dif­fer­ent; the Tas­ma­nian tiger ac­tu­ally ex­ists.”

Tiny Mole Creek, named af­ter a trib­u­tary of the Mersey River that flows un­der­ground but keeps pop­ping up over­ground and looks straight up at the rugged es­carp­ment of the Great Western Tiers, has to­day be­come the cen­tre of a ti­tanic Tassie-tiger cult. The “Wel­come to Mole Creek” signs as you en­ter and leave the town have just been adorned with a draw­ing of a thy­lacine and the words “Tiger Coun­try”.

But there’s much more here than any town of this size – pop­u­la­tion 230 with an­other 380 liv­ing on the out­skirts – has a rea­son­able right to. For starters, it’s built over a lime­stone net­work of more than 300 caves in Mole Creek Karst Na­tional Park. Only one, King Solomons Cave, is open to the public af­ter heavy rain­fall ear­lier in the year trig­gered surg­ing flood­wa­ters that also tem­po­rar­ily closed ac­cess to an­other ma­jor tourist at­trac­tion nearby: the Walls of Jerusalem Na­tional Park.

King Solomons Cave dis­plays a rich trea­suretrove of thou­sands of cas­cad­ing sta­lac­tites and mag­nif­i­cent sta­lag­mites in ex­tra­or­di­nary shades of am­ber, pink and red, with the cal­cite on ev­ery sur­face sparkling as if en­crusted with a mil­lion tiny di­a­monds. “It’s a glo­ri­ously pretty cave,” says Haydn St­ed­man of Tasmania’s Parks & Wildlife Ser­vice. “It was dis­cov­ered in 1906 when a dog chased a wal­laby down a hole and its own­ers fol­lowed. It first opened to the public in 1908. That day, 300 peo­ple turned up to see it, rid­ing along the rough gravel road with their horses and drays and mo­tor­cars.”

A former Syd­ney teacher, St­ed­man moved to Mole Creek in 1993 and ended up run­ning a guest­house be­fore be­com­ing a guide. “It’s a great com­mu­nity, with lots of characters and ev­ery­one sup­port­ing each other,” he says. “But while I’m very set­tled here, I can’t call my­self a lo­cal. You have to be here for three gen­er­a­tions be­fore you can make a claim to that ti­tle!”

“It's like the Loch Ness Mon­ster... But the Tas­ma­nian tiger ac­tu­ally ex­ists. ”

“You have to work hard to stay on the map – you can be for­got­ten here.”

An­other man who’s made his mark on the town is An­droo “Roo” Kelly, who runs Trowunna Wildlife Park, an an­i­mal sanc­tu­ary, re­hab and con­ser­va­tion cen­tre, world-renowned for its land­mark breeding pro­gram of the thy­lacine’s clos­est cousin, the Tas­ma­nian devil. Roo has raised 16 gen­er­a­tions of devils since the project started there in 1985 – a third of Aus­tralia’s en­tire devil pop­u­la­tion – and over­sees the long­est con­tin­u­ous breeding pro­gram of any Aus­tralian mar­su­pial species.

“At the mo­ment, we have 60 devils here, 21 wom­bats, nearly 100 friendly kan­ga­roos and wal­la­bies, and a num­ber of eastern quolls and spot­ted-tailed quolls, all in our very nat­u­ral, rus­tic en­vi­ron­ment,” says Roo, a former youth worker who started work at the park as a keeper in 1986 and bought the place in 1993. “Ten years ago, there were pre­dic­tions the devil would be­come ex­tinct in 15 years but all the signs are that they’ve come back in num­bers. I’m now very op­ti­mistic about their future.”

The park’s devil res­i­dents – from tiny ba­bies nursed in bean­ies by vol­un­teers to older an­i­mals who are ei­ther re­leased back into the wild or sent to sanc­tu­ar­ies around the world – are all free of the can­cer­ous fa­cial tu­mours that have been threat­en­ing the species. About the size of a small bear, they look in­cred­i­bly cute... un­til feed­ing time, when they rip apart an an­i­mal car­cass with the blood-cur­dling shrieks that earned them their name.

Food is never far from the minds of hu­mans in Mole Creek, ei­ther. The town plays a proud role in the re­gion’s stand­ing as a gourmet food pro­ducer, with old honey fac­tory R. Stephens Tas­ma­nian Honey on the main street, the 41° South salmon and gin­seng farm nearby, as well as a rasp­berry or­chard and Tas­ma­nian Truf­fles, pro­ducer of Aus­tralia’s first home­grown black truf­fle.

Mole Creek is also home to the pic­turesque Spring­field Deer Farm, which hosts more than 600 deer. Owner Michal Frydrych is a com­par­a­tive new­comer to town, hav­ing bought the or­ganic, free-range farm four years ago. “Mole Creek is such a beau­ti­ful place,” says Michal, who has a cot­tage for vis­i­tors to stay among the deer and wildlife, such as echid­nas. “You can go walk­ing to the top of the Tiers and the fish­ing is fan­tas­tic. But you have to work hard to stay on the map – you can be for­got­ten here.”

Yet back at the pub, ev­ery­one’s work­ing to­gether to make sure that won’t ever hap­pen. Doug, pulling a schooner of Tassie Tiger Ale with tap han­dles fash­ioned from a pair of Michal’s deer antlers, grins: “And as soon as we man­age to take a photo of a Tas­ma­nian tiger...”

Fal­low deer from Spring­field Deer Farm roam freely around 53 hectares of green pas­tures

(Left) Tuck in to Tiger pies and beer at Mole Creek Ho­tel. (From top) Spring­field Deer Farm; King Solomons Cave; true be­liev­ers Ra­mona and Doug West­brook

Henry Terry from Tas­ma­nian Truf­fles holds nuggets of “black gold” (top left); Trowunna Wildlife Park vol­un­teer An­drew Pot­tage with two-year-old Del Ray

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